Who is Ketanji Brown Jackson?
Biden’s nominee could become the court’s most liberal justice
Nearly a month after Justice Stephen Breyer announced his plan to hang up his robe at the end of this term, President Joe Biden has decided on his replacement. Ketanji Brown Jackson is a Harvard graduate, former clerk for Breyer, and one of the youngest nominees at age 51. If confirmed, she would be the first black woman to sit on the bench of the nation’s highest court. As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, sometimes referred to as “the second highest court in the land,” she is no stranger to high-profile cases, but her judicial track record has conservatives worried.
Jackson was confirmed as a U.S. District judge in 2013 and then promoted to the D.C. Circuit in 2021. Lawmakers’ questions at her confirmation hearings for those positions might indicate what will come up in her Supreme Court vetting.
Jackson has never presided over a major First Amendment case. As a lawyer at a Boston firm in 2001, she filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting a Massachusetts law that established 35-foot buffer zones around abortion centers. She represented pro-abortion organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice America to argue that the state had to insulate the centers from pro-life protests. The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the law in 2014 for infringing on pro-lifers’ First Amendment rights.
In 2021, she was asked about her former position on the board of a Maryland Christian school that in its statement of faith affirms the sanctity of life and the institution of marriage as between a man and a woman. Jackson said she was not aware of the statement and that she does not necessarily agree with all positions of the boards she has served on. While she has not publicly revealed what religious beliefs she holds, on Friday, she thanked God for her career thus far. She has received endorsements from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish organizations.
She is the only nominee since Thurgood Marshall to have experience in criminal defense, and in 2012 and 2021 senators spotlighted her role as a public defender. Between 2005 and 2007, she served as a court-appointed lawyer and was assigned to defend Afghan detainee and terror suspect Khi Ali Gul. Republican lawmakers asked whether she believed terrorists pose a threat to the United States. Jackson replied that her motions as a public defender represented her clients’ views, not necessarily her own. She noted her brother was serving in Iraq during the time she worked on these cases, giving her a view into both sides.
As federal district court judge, Jackson ruled in a number of cases involving the administration of former President Donald Trump. In 2019, she ruled that former White House counsel Don McGahn had to testify to a committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, despite Trump’s order for McGahn not to. In her scathing opinion, Jackson memorably argued, “Presidents are not kings.”
More recently, Jackson ruled against Trump’s executive privilege claims to withhold documents from the House subcommittee investigating the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. The Supreme Court later affirmed that decision.
She ruled again in 2018 that three of Trump’s executive orders infringed on the rights of federal employee unions, a decision the D.C. Circuit Court overturned, citing that she did not have the jurisdiction to make a judgment. The Circuit Court again overturned a decision she made against the Department of Homeland Security act to expand the definition of a noncitizen. This change, ordered by Trump, gave DHS broader authority for deportations, but the court said Jackson’s decision to block it did not fall under the proper procedural act.
This pattern of overturned decisions concerned Republicans during her hearings in 2021. Left-wing groups like Demand Justice endorsed her and ran ads supporting her. The same group advocates adding more justices to the Supreme Court to dilute the conservative majority on the bench. Some senators wondered if she was tailoring her opinions to fit public support. Jackson insisted she takes judicial duty seriously and refused to comment on the size and structure of the court.
Heritage Foundation scholar Hans von Spakovsky called Jackson “probably the most left-wing ideologue that’s ever been nominated to the Supreme Court,” adding, “When you look at some of the decisions she’s signed on to, she doesn’t really care about the law or the Constitution, what she cares about are social causes and using her power as a judge to further this.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty law firm, also highlighted the importance of constitutional interpretation free from partisan sway. “If confirmed, we pray that Judge Jackson will heed the magnitude of that concern and respect the limits of her judicial office, ruling according to the Constitution, and not legislating from the bench,” general counsel Kristen Waggoner said in a statement.
Biden promised he would fill the court vacancy with a black woman, but Jackson previously testified that her race should have nothing to do with her judicial work. She commented that judges should be aware of unconscious racial bias and that her personal background brings valuable assets to the bench.
Breyer once described Jackson as “brilliant” and a mix of “common sense and thoughtfulness.” Jackson said she wants to copy Breyer’s “awesome style of questioning.” Appearing at the White House with Biden on Friday, Jackson addressed some remarks to Breyer, saying, “The members of the Senate will decide if I fill your seat, but please know that I could never fill your shoes.”
Democratic leaders said they want a quick confirmation process, setting April 8 as a tentative deadline. They will need the entire caucus to approve Jackson’s nomination, plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris if they meet unanimous Republican opposition.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Judge Brown Jackson was a district court judge in 2019.